Top 100 v1.45 SHRM

Topics: John Sumser, Movers/Shakers, by John Sumser

As I’ve navigated the first half of the Top 100 HR-Influencers, I’ve had to think hard about the role of SHRM in the industry. Long term readers will be aware of my historically somewhat negative views on the organization. The project helped me reshape my view. SHRM provides the glue that holds the discipline together.

SHRM takes a lot of heat for its ‘failures’. I’ve come to realize that much of that criticism is misplaced. SHRM is often used as a surrogate for the profession itself.

Like many national associations and franchises, the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM) is a bundle of contradictory strengths and weaknesses. The local chapters offer amazing regional innovation and stodgy academia-ish tenure based networks. The national association is both lifeline and anchor for its membership. On the whole, the benefit SHRM delivers is significantly greater than the burden it creates.

SHRM serves its primary purpose, keeping its members up to date, and informed more effectively than most professional associations. The local chapters are the backbone of the profession. Much of the criticism aimed at SHRM ends up there because there is nowhere else to throw it.

The market offers mixed reviews of SHRM’s performance and validity. The venerable professional society has its share of competitors and naysayers. At the same time, over 40% of industry practitioners have a membership. SHRM certification is widely understood as a measure of competence. (It’s notable that there are competing certifications that emphasize human capital strategy.)

There are no other operations that can hold a candle to the SHRM infrastructure. With deep (but separate) penetration in local markets, much of the real SHRM action happens at the chapter level. There are feudal legacies in place in most regions of the United States. The local SHRM organization is often the best path to employment in the sector.

SHRM’s architecture and framework make the outstanding contribution of the local chapters possible. While there is an inherent friction between national and local operations, the benefit can be seen in the flowering of grass-roots initiatives. The national organization has a thankless job.

Without SHRM and its local chapters, HR professionals would drown in a sea of contradictory information. The organization provides, at its roots, the structure and data necessary to keep the profession viable. Critiques that don’t account for this fundamental value miss the boat.

Criticizing SHRM is the active past-time of a range of commentators, managers and pundits. Some of the flak is a direct result of the profession’s fungibility. HR is a different beast in different regions and different industries. Approaches to HR that work well in information/service businesses fail routinely in the manufacturing, hospitality and retail sectors. The manners and procedures required for effective execution in Birmingham, AL are a kiss of death in New York City.

It’s nearly impossible for an organization to simultaneously provide critical maintenance information and insight while teaching a profession how to innovate.

SHRM’s tendency to maintain a large moat around its silo is both structural and intentional. All professional associations share an inherent core belief that there are transferable skills and messages within the profession. The view comes at the expense of traction in some settings and is the source of the industry’s penchant for self-measurement and navel gazing.

A large chunk of the difficulty lies with the profession itself. HR is a jumbled bag of cats and dogs that vary from organization to organization. Any rational human being would have a hard time staying on top of the material. The networks that evolve outward from the local chapters give working professionals access to the expertise required to navigate the regulatory and region specific aspects of the discipline.

“Keeping up with it all” is a routine struggle for the men and women who operate the vast majority of HR Departments. These folks are their organization’s eyes and ears in the battle to solve employee relations problems while staying one step ahead of changes in regulation. SHRM and its loose network of local operations serves these people magnificently.

SHRM is significantly better at the task of keeping its membership up to speed than professional associations in other areas.

Things are much less clear when the question turns to the creation of sustained value for the organization. In a land of best practices, no meaningful advantage can be developed. Almost by definition, a professional association is in the business of transmitting old stories and conventional wisdom. It’s the wrong place to look for innovation (or its seeds). In fact, it’s worth being a little suspicious when a professional association takes on the question.

Maximizing the value derived from Human Capital is an organizational contact sport. In mature industries, the process is formulaic. But, in young, expanding sectors, the rules appear while the game is being played. Sometimes, basic functions have to be radically reconceived in order to accomplish the organization’s mission. This is where all professional associations are their weakest. SHRM is no different.

The parts of the profession who are not served by SHRM fall into two categories: adaptive companies that insist on pure business results from their HR operation and those that get their information from another source. The first group is not really a potential SHRM customer and the second gets value from competing services, periodicals and associations.

The depth and intensity of the criticism aimed at SHRM may be the best indicator of its overall influence. As the factions argue about SHRM’s validity and viability, the future of the profession takes shape. One of the most interesting aspects of the association’s integrity is its willingness to engage critics thoughtfully and patiently. China Gorman, profiled earlier in this series, works diligently to understand and incorporate new ideas and constructive critique.

It is likely that SHRM will be the only institution to make the Top 100 Influencers list. For the people inside the silo, it is a source of credibility, inspiration and information. For those outside its purview, perspectives range from frustration to admiration. SHRM is the one element of the HR ecosystem on which every member has an opinion. For everyine involved, it is a stabilizing force.

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